Certain Songs #390: Elton John – “Rocket Man”

Honky Chateau Album: Honky Chateau
Year: 1972

Well, yeah, “Rocket Man.” First off, this is the greatest song that Elton John & Bernie Taupin ever wrote. And, of course, it was a massive hit single around the world.

As I’ve pointed out previously, songs about SPACE were prevalent in the early 1970s, and “Rocket Man” could have easily been a novelty song instead of a timeless classic.

So let’s first credit Elton with coming up with a song that has, like, a half-dozen great hooks. I mean, there’s the first part of the chorus, which you’re already singing:

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
‘Til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh, no no no
I’m a rocket man

The way that Elton sings “Oh, no no no” is utterly heartbreaking. Sure, the astronauts were heroes, but they were also just dudes who happened to work in SPACE, and it’s all right there in the chorus, as Elton continues, while Davey Johnstone’s slide guitar blasts off:

Rocket man (mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnn)
Burning out his fuse up here alone

And, of course, there are Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. Bernie wasn’t always the greatest lyricist, but his words matched the sadness of the music and Elton’s vocals as the second verse drops just to piano:

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact, it’s cold as hell
And there’s no one there to raise them
If you did

And all the science I don’t understand
It’s just my job, five days a week
A rocket mannnnnnn-aaaaaaaa–hannnnn
Rocket man

BTW, Elton just sings the fuck out of this, especially how he lets his voice crack on the first “Rocket Man” His singing is so great, it almost distracts from the great question raised by the last verse: what does the Rocket Man do on Saturday and Sunday? Right? It’s not like they had Netflix in 1972.

But that’s also part of the point: the loneliness of the long-distance spaceman, which is driven home by the coda.

One of the things I’m beginning to realize as I’m writing these posts about songs I’ve loved for 40 years is that Elton John’s classic singles often had great endings. Often — think “Saturday Night is Alright for Fighting” or “Bitch is Back” — repeating the title, driving the point of the song home until the very last possible second

But none of his songs had a greater ending than the space noises slowly taking over as Elton worries:

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time

He’s fading away, getting lost in the depths of space. Out of radio communication. Out of sight. Out of mind. Maybe he’ll see Major Tom out there, or gang of space truckers, but probably not.

That coda has always been my favorite part of “Rocket Man.” Even on the static-filled AM radio, it sounded beautiful and sad and mysterious, and the fate of the Rocket Man was clearly tragic and unknowable.

“Rocket Man” performed live in 1972

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